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Oral cancer: A growing problem, yet a powerful opportunity

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Oral cancer: A growing problem, yet a powerful opportunity
When you decided to be a dentist, you probably never expected to be in a position to save lives. But the fact of the matter is that all dental professionals today are being counted on to be the first line of defense against oral cancer and other oral diseases. While medical science and healthier lifestyles have succeeded in reducing the number of deaths from most types of cancer, the number of people dying from oral cancer is at an all-time high.

How can this be, given the significant reduction in the number of smokers and tobacco users during the past several decades? The primary explanation is the alarming growth in the number of cases of oral cancer caused by the sexually-transmitted human papilloma virus, or HPV.

In fact, the day will soon be here — if it is not already — when HPV passes tobacco as the No. 1 cause of oral cancer.

Compounding the situation is the fact that more often than not, oral cancer is detected in late stages, when the five-year survival rate is less than 50 percent. When discovered in early stages, however, the survival rate leaps to approximately 82 percent. Earlier detection is clearly the key to reduced mortality and morbidity rates, and the key to earlier detection is the dental practice.

After all, who spends more time looking inside the oral cavity — and who knows more about the oral cavity — than you?

Most experts advise that all patients aged 18 and older receive a comprehensive oral cancer screening at least once a year. (Some would go so far as to have the screenings start at age 14.) At a minimum, the screening should include the conventional exam featuring palpation of the face and neck and visual inspection under white light. This should ideally be a part of every hygiene check-up, yet surveys show that most patients say they have never experienced this kind of exam.

In addition, there are several adjunctive tools that now make it possible to detect cancerous and pre-cancerous lesions that cannot be seen by the naked eye and are not causing any pain or discomfort to the patient. The most popular detection technology in use today is tissue fluorescence visualization.

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